Maxwell Oben, Southern Cameroons National Council, SCNC Yaounde Representative cum Chairman of the Southern National Commission for Human Rights, has been released on bail, after spending four years at the Buea Central Prison.
Maxwell Oben was arrested in Buea on the eve of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Reunification of the Cameroons, ferried to the Military Tribunal in Yaounde and charged with plotting to incite civil strife and destabilise the State.
The charges, detectably, stemmed from the fact that he was found with a book by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the famous Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, guerrilla leader, freedom fighter, diplomat and military theorist.
Oben, in this exclusive interview granted The Post following his release, narrates the circumstances that surrounded his abduction, physical and psychological torture, life in prison and other very horrendous and telling experiences and his position on the struggle.
The Post: How and where were you arrested?
I was accosted at one of the travel agencies at Mile 17 in Buea on February 2, 2014, while I was headed for Yaounde. I had already taken my seat in the bus when, suddenly, four policemen appeared in front of me and flashed their professional cards. They told me that the Governor wanted to see me.
I asked them how the Governor can ask for me when he does not know me, because, I am based in Yaounde. However, I told them that I can only go to the Governor when next I come to Buea. I left and after a few moments, came back and dragged me out of the bus.
Outside, there were about 37 of them, including a Superintendant of Police. They pushed me around and into their vehicle and drove with me, not to the Governor’s Office, but to an office adjacent to the Governor’s Office. There, I asked them whether I was under arrest. It was a Sunday and they did not present any summons or warrant of arrest. They said I wasn’t under arrest but that it was the eve of Reunification celebration and the Government wanted to talk with the SCNC, hence, the Government wanted me to list the grievances of the SCNC.
What did you tell them?
I thought it was an opportunity for me to tell them how the Anglophone community feels. I saw myself as if I was in front of medical doctor, thus, I should describe in exact terms what the problem is. It would appear they didn’t like what I told them, because, for days, they kept shuttling me between the Territorial Surveillance Police (adjacent the Governor’s Office) and the Judicial Police (about a hundred meters away). I was thus undergoing interrogation in two places. Then, at night, I was locked up at the Judicial Police, awaiting interrogation the next day. In the end, I was taken before the Attorney General.
For how long were you interrogated and what were the charges levelled at you to the Attorney General?
After interrogating me for about five to six days, they came up with charges such as: conspiracy to civil war, insurrection, secessionist activities, threat to the security of the nation and plans to disrupt the 50th anniversary of Reunification and President Biya’s visit to Buea.
What was the reaction of the Attorney General?
He was only interested in the book, ‘Guerrilla Warfare’ by Che Guevara which was in my possession when I was abducted. He asked me why I was reading such a book and I told him that I have read ‘Communal Liberalism’ by Paul Biya; I have read the Bible; I have read many other books but I haven’t become the writer. He said the worry was because of the Boko Haram phenomenon in the country.
I asked why worry about a book that is not banned in the country… and that I don’t think the book is banned anywhere in the world. He did not ask me any question pertaining to why I was in front of him, but passed me over to the State Council’s office from where I was not interrogated, but sent to the Buea Central Prison on February 8, 2014.
How did you find yourself in Yaounde when you were arrested but in Buea?
On February 26, 2014, I was handcuffed and blindfolded at 4.00 and dragged to a waiting car. I thought that was the end of life, because, no one told me where I was being taken to. The vehicle drove for about 10 minutes and stopped. Still blindfolded, I was transferred into another vehicle with many other people coming on board. After it cruised for about an hour, some people complained that they wanted to pee. I said I also wanted to pee.
My transporters removed the blinds and left me in cuffs and as I descended I saw a signpost indicating that we were in Douala. I pleaded with the guys not to blindfold me any longer and we drove to Yaounde to the Military Court at the Infantry Division of the Army. I was interrogated for four hours by an Examining Magistrate with the rank of a Captain or Major in the Army.
What did you tell the Military Examining Magistrate?
I told him, sincerely, what the Anglophones or Southern Cameroonians think. I told them we have never been violent; we were only doing advocacy and writing to the international community and trying to win sympathy for our plight of illegal occupation and systematic colonisation of the Southern Cameroons by La Republique du Cameroun.
After that, at about 8.00pm, I was taken to the Yaounde Maximum Security Prison. The next morning, I was brought out by the authorities and I saw people doing finger prints and taking passport size photographs. When my turn came, the officer who was supervising the exercise struck off my name and charged at me, shouting: “C’est vous qui voulez diviser le Camerooun n’est pas? He started beating and kicking me and his colleagues joined in and they beat me until they were tired. That is when they took my finger prints and picture and sent me back to my cell.
After 35 days, I was called up to the office of the Chief of Administration of the Prison where I met saw four men in military uniform, carrying rifles. They asked me to go and bring my bag and follow them. I obliged and we entered a car driven by another military man to the Yaounde Military Prison where they did some paper work. After that, I was driven to the Buea Military Court where they did more paper work and then took me to the Buea Central Prison.
Two or three days after, I was called to the Buea Military Tribunal where I was asked three questions by a certain Commandant Engo Thadee, Examining Magistrate No 1. He asked if I ever used a gun, I said no; he asked where is the capital of that our country is? I told him; but you are in Buea where the capital of the Southern Cameroons was; the structures that housed the various Government institutions: PM’s Lodge, the House of Parliament and many others are still there. He asked if that our country had a flag; I said no. He told me that he will give me one year of detention renewable, beginning that date.
Did he renew the term or what made you stay in prison?
After about 10 months in prison, he started calling me to his chambers for interrogation, but there was no interrogation for about one year eight months. Then, I was told that my file was empty, because, there was nothing incriminating against me in military justice. I was told that my file was in Yaounde and would be brought.
Some people finally came from Yaounde with my file. The last time I met the military judge, he said I would either be released or the case would be sent to a civilian court. The case was finally sent to the Buea Magistrate Court.
I learnt that my case was political, not military, but that people used me to attain higher ranks in the military. That I was arrested within that period of the coming of the Head of State to give the impression that they care about his security, and that is how they got promotion to higher ranks.
How did the case go at the Magistrate Court?
At the Magistrate Court they brought in two new charges against me, namely; “unlawful assembly” and “justification to felony” which, till date, I don’t know where the unlawful assembly took place or which kind of felony I was trying to justify. Of course, these were all trumped-up charges.
But you were, at least, an SCNC activist, weren’t you?
I was and I still am. But I believe the Government had infiltrated the SCNC to the extent that the leaders were fighting between themselves. I think I was betrayed, because, within that period of my arrest, I was mobilising Southern Cameroonians to collect 50,000 signatures to back up a petition to the UN on the illegal occupation, annexation and colonisation of the former UN Trust Territory of British Southern Cameroons/Ambazonia.
Did the Magistrate Court ask you to walk out of prison, just like that?
No, I was released by the Magistrate Court on bail after an amount of money was deposited as surety.
What was your life in prison like?
The prison conditions are deplorable. The prison is over-crowded. In my cell, we were about 130 inmates and only 19 beds, so, most of the people sleep on the bare floor. My sight was affected and, sometimes, I have loss of memory. They don’t give permission to inmates to go for medical check up for fear that they will escape. They prefer you to stay and die. Many die on a daily basis.
While you were in, what did you miss most?
I missed my wife and my children. It has not been easy between me and my wife and children. But they took it as a challenge and gave me the moral support I needed. Of course, they still would have wanted me to be there for them. I missed my comrades and the struggle. There is also my business, Obens & Co Ltd, based in Yaounde.
While in prison, were you following the way your struggle was going?
I have heard that we are being referred to as secessionists and terrorists. It is unfortunate that the media is amplifying those words. We are not terrorists; we have never carried out any acts of terrorism against the Government of La Republique du Cameroun or any section of the country.
It is instead the Government that is carrying out State terrorism on unarmed, voiceless and peaceful people who have used the “Force of Argument” as a motto that governs the philosophy of the organisation. I want to ask President Biya and his Minister, Tchiroma, to tell me if they know of any terrorists around the world who has taken any Government to court.
But the Anglophone nationalist movements have taken the Government to courts inside Cameroon and to international courts: they did in 1984 in Bamenda and won, at the African Court in the Banjul and in Nigeria where the Abuja court ruled in favour of the Southern Cameroons. Dictators often hurriedly describe uprising against them as terrorism so that the international community would sympathise with them and give them a blank cheque to perpetrate genocide and crush opposition to their dictatorship
How would you rate the struggle today?
Before I answer that, I want to thank Lawyers Stanislaus Ajong, Blaise Berinyuy, Emmanuel Nkea and a battery of others who followed up my case; the American Embassy for sending their political affairs official; Southern Cameroonians at home and in the Diaspora, friends and family members that assisted me tremendously.
I want to pay homage to the people I have lost during the time I was in prison; my son, my elder sister and other loved ones. Sincere thanks go to people like Mola Njoh Litumbe who, despite his age, came to court every day for me; Hon Ayah, Late Prof. Asonganyi who assisted my family and many others that I cannot all name here.
Now, about the struggle: when an army takes up vandalism, killing women and children asleep, sending their grandparents to prison and burning down houses under the guise of fighting secessionists and terrorists; it is a clear indication that they have lost the battle and, on the other hand, a vivid indication to every Southern Cameroonian/Ambazonian that the restoration of their statehood is at hand.
Interviewed by Bouddih Adams